My Expo Pavilion: a visit to Oman leaves behind a heady scent

The National journalists visit pavilions from the countries they call home

During my first trip to Expo 2020 Dubai with my mother who was visiting, we didn’t have a very clear idea of the country pavilions we wanted to see.

But she was adamant that she would like to visit the India Pavilion at least once before she left the UAE.

It made sense. We're Indian citizens, and the country she grew up in and where I spent three years of my college life held a special place in our hearts.

We did end up visiting the India Pavilion. And while that satiated some of our appetite for culture, I left Expo 2020 that day feeling discomforted that I hadn’t seen the Oman Pavilion, the country where I was born and raised, spent the first 19 years of my life and continue to visit every year (2020 being the one exception).

It's the place I call home.

Which is why, the next time I visited Expo 2020, I was on a mission: to find the Oman Pavilion. I wanted to rediscover the coastal country that borders the UAE, see it display its culture and natural beauty, and revel in a little nostalgia.

The structure, in the Mobility District, lives up to expectations. The Oman Pavilion has been inspired by frankincense, the aromatic resin from the bark of the Boswellia tree, which is native to the country.

You can see that this has influenced the shape of the pavilion itself, an elegant, flowing white structure with wooden elements that resembles an ethereal tree.

Right before entering, you see what appears to be a white pot with an orb inside. Waving our hands over it revealed it to be a frankincense hand sanitiser – a quirky interactive element that was as fun as it was relevant for the times in which we live.

The fact it left our hands with the heady scent of frankincense was just another added bonus.

For those not in the know, Oman is known for producing excellent-quality frankincense, especially in the Dhofar governorate.

When I was much younger, on a tour with family friends, a local revealed how frankincense was procured: by scraping the bark of the tree, which leaks a sticky resin.

The resin is dried and used to create aromatic oils and perfumes. It also has medicinal properties. And the Oman Pavilion has leaned hard on frankincense as the overarching theme.

Within the dimly lit entrance is a frankincense tree, quite literally on a pedestal. In the background, a film is projected on to the walls, explaining the history of frankincense, how it was exported across civilisations and its uses.

Greeting every guest on entry are two Omani women, a wonderful little reminder of the hospitality for which Oman is so well known.

“If you like this part, you will definitely enjoy the other floors,” one of the ladies amicably tells my mother.

On the first floor, a space pays further tribute to the trees, with tree-shaped cut-outs reflecting projections on ambitious projects in Oman.

With twinkling lights on the ceiling, it’s a beautifully crafted room, but there isn’t a lot of information on what makes projects such as Al Amerat landfill or the Million Date Palm Plantation unique.

Some of the projects, such as the Oman Botanic Garden, are not complete yet either, making information on them scarce.

Another section revealed a tiny theatre space with a seating area. On repeat was a projection of Omani musicians performing in an orchestra “with the essence of the frankincense tree” in mind, in keeping with the theme.

While beautiful in its own way, I did yearn to see more of Oman’s culture in that projection. I missed the traditional dance, done with a staff or a sword, with which I associate the country far more than any orchestra.

An impressive section of the Oman Pavilion is Frankincense Crystal Hall, where domes or “crystals” hang from the ceiling.

Those standing within these crystals can view a screen and learn about different aspects of Oman, with the shape of the crystal creating an echoing sensation.

There are different topics covered here, highlighting Omani achievements, including water management, and more details about the uses of frankincense.

Another zone looks at the future of frankincense: could this ingredient play a role in colonising Mars?

Meanwhile, more stations, such as the one at the entrance of the pavilion, let people smell the revered ingredient in different variations – plain, infused with lemon and infused with rose, another nice interactive element.

A moment of pride for me was seeing the faces of some of the young Omanis who played a role in developing the Oman Pavilion, and noting the number of women featured.

I left the Oman Pavilion with mixed emotions. As a tribute to frankincense, the execution is flawless. As a display of the best Oman has to offer, I couldn’t help but feeling like it fell short.

Where was the tribute to Salalah’s khareef season? The wadis and the jebels? The greenery that stretches for miles? The coconut trees and date palms? Traditional Omani attire? The khanjar (a type of Omani dagger that is synonymous with the Sultanate)? The sticky Omani halwa? The delicious Chips Oman?

Nor did I feel like that it reflects the country currently going through a period of change.

Over the past two years, not only has Oman had to deal with a pandemic that has halted tourism but also the death of its long-time ruler, Sultan Qaboos, who led the country for nearly half a century.

Sultan Haitham has since taken the reins.

Perhaps I was feeling greedy with my expectations from a pavilion. Or perhaps nostalgia just got the better of me.

But these feelings lingered as I left the Oman Pavilion. That and the faint whiff of frankincense.

Updated: November 14th 2021, 9:31 AM